Only days after Russia’s President Vladmir Putin stated his intention to rely on Syrian fighters to boost the country’s manpower, Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov announced that he had travelled to Ukraine to show support and meet with Russian troops.
His trip to the war zone will not have lasted long, as not even forty-eight hours later, Kadyrov was filmed at the Grozny airport back in Chechnya to pick up the Secretary of the Russian Security Council. Since the very beginning of the war, Chechen forces have been a key part of the Kremlin’s plans. Western intelligence officials confirmed that Chechen hit teams were hired by Russia to carry out an assassination against Ukraine’s political leadership, which failed in the first days of the invasion.
Who is Ramzan Kadyrov?
Prior to becoming the Head of the Chechen Republic in 2007, Ramzan Kadyrov played many roles ranging from being his father’s - Akhmad Kadyrov, former Chechen President - personal driver and bodyguard, to later being appointed Prime Minister. However, arguably his most important and continuous role, has been as one of Putin’s most loyal supporters.
Following his father’s death, in 2004, Kadyrov was promoted to his first governmental position as Deputy Prime Minister. It is believed that at this time, Putin gave him the equivalent of a carte blanche, where he could resort to any means he deemed necessary to crush Chechen independence movements and gain control over the population. In return, the Russian government provided Chechnya with significant funds to re-build its battered economy and country, as part of a mass-scale program which Kadyrov coordinated. Kadyrov excelled at his task and was nominated as President by Putin only 3 years after.
Since taking power, Kadyrov has led imposing an authoritarian leadership and a cult of personality where he has established himself as the sole ruler of Chechnya. To put this in perspective, at the heart of the capital, stands the Kadyrov Mosque located near the Kadyrov Square, all named after the ruling family. His primary tools to retain power have been propaganda and sustained fear, where any subordinates who dare question his authority have been said to either be forced to flee the Republic or get killed.
Kadyrovites: separatist militia to paramilitary group
Among the responsibilities Kadyrov inherited from his father, was the control of the Kadyrovites, also known as the Kadyrovtsy. It was formed following the outbreak of the first Chechen War in 1994, and at the time consisted of a Chechen separatist militia serving as a personal army for elder Kadyrov. Living up to the Republic’s strong tradition of warriors, the militia was made up of thousands of devoted separatists Chechen men who fought against the Russian Armed Forces (RAF) and won. Following Kadyrov’s shift to the Russian side in the Second Chechen War of 1999, the militia started to fight and kill both separatists and jihadists, acting then as a de facto state police. When Ramzan became their commander in 2004, he dismantled the existing structure of the group. Some remaining units having served under his father were integrated into the Russian security forces, others were entrenched in the Chechen government, while two new units were formed, as the Kadyrov and Oil Regiments. However, several members continued to operate semi-legally as paramilitary formations.
The Kadyrovtsy were then provided by their leader with more advanced equipment and came to be legally recognized by Russia as a law enforcement unit. In 2016, following several reforms, the majority of the Russian military and paramilitary troops were put under the command of the newly formed National Guard of Russia. This also included the Chechen internal armed forces nominally, but Kadyrov still retained direct power over them. These forces have been accused of fundamental human rights abuses including kidnapping, torture, murder, and are reputed for their brutality.
The Putin of Chechnya
One particular opportunity which Kadyrov exploited to demonstrate his loyalty to Putin was the eruption of the 2014 hostilities, in the wake of Moscow’s annexation of Crimea. According to various sources, the Chechen leader made the decision to deploy his security forces to fight alongside pro-Russian troops in Eastern Ukraine, only to then “disown” them, essentially claiming that they were volunteers having travelled there without his knowledge. That is, it was to reinforce the Kremlin’s narrative that the military troops sent in the Donbas were all local volunteers. By informally using the Kadyrovtsy, Putin could then claim that he had nothing to do with their deployment and rather place the blame on their “uncontrollable” will to volunteer to active conflict zones. This enables Russia to downplay and gloss over its controversial ‘security’ operations (including illegal practices) in conflict zones and attribute the actions of Chechen militants to their culture of warfare. Allegations were made that Chechnya went as far as opening recruitment centers throughout the Republic for volunteers to fight in the Ukraine conflict. The reports, based in part on local sources, stated that Chechen men were encouraged to join in exchange of monetary compensation and intimidated if they didn’t.
According to analyst Emil Souleimanov, the uncontainable volunteer argument has been used “episodically by pro-Moscow observers and officials to explain the massive use of violence by the Kadyrovtsy against relatives of local insurgents… and the fact that ‘Chechen butchers’ are deployed in the fighting render their psychological impact even stronger.” It is their very reputation as ruthless fighters which is likely to have in part prompted their deployment in this year’s Russian invasion of Ukraine. Alongside their substantial fighting experience, these elements can have significant psychological consequences on and beyond the combat zone, which Russia has leveraged on as a weapon against adversaries. In this regard, images were broadcasted by Russian propaganda media showing Chechen fighters mobilizing south of Ukraine and soldiers being handed cards with the names and picture of their targets.
Unwavering Support Explained
Over the years, it has become clear on multiple occasions that Kadyrov has unquestionable loyalty towards Putin, and by extension Russia. In order to understand this unwavering support, it is important to note the symbiotic relationship which exists between the two politicians offering each other mutual political and security guarantees. For Moscow, to gain the compliance of Chechnya, has implied flooding it with money - the New Yorker reports that today 85 percent of the Republic’s budget comes from the Russian government. This quasi-dependence on the Kremlin for money has in return largely secured peace in Chechnya. In turn, for Kadyrov to earn some compliance from Putin, he had to prove his loyalty continuously by successfully achieving (informally) the missions he was set out to execute. Part of these have included crushing the Islamic insurgency in Chechnya, which Kadyrov has been able to do relying primarily on his Kadyrovsky. More broadly, this has contributed to the victory in the fight against Islamic terrorism in the Caucasus region, which is extremely important for Putin as it is one of the reasons behind his popular legitimacy.
With Putin’s trust and support, Kadyrov has been able to do as he pleases to a large extent without significant restrictions or backlash. He has used the Kremlin to gain standing as a key federal politician in both Chechnya and Russia, where he now enjoys prestige and fame. In exchange, in Kadyrov, Putin has gained an ally which resembles him - holds centralized authority, can eliminate any dissident, and aligns with him politically as seen most recently in Ukraine. He uses him for stability, order, and military power - Kadyrov has offered him his fighters “to carry out his orders under any circumstances” both at home and abroad, as seen in Ukraine, Syria, and Georgia. And if Putin ever dared to reconsider his partnership with Kadyrov, his submissive army of thousands would unarguably let their voices be heard - and the rest would be history.